The tired Israeli Left and the return of Ehud Barak is presenting for readers a series of observations by noted researcher Gabriel Haritos broadly entitled “The Israeli Parliamentary Elections of September 17, 2019, and the Greek Regional Factor.” These studies will be featured, over the days leading up to the election.

Gabriel Haritos, Ph.D., Researcher, The Ben Gurion Reserach Institute, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs,The tired Israeli Left and the return of Ehud Barak





The tired Israeli Left and the return of Ehud Barak

The key wager for the left opposition in Israel once again called upon to win is to emerge as a realistic alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-lasting tenure as prime minister. The forthcoming parliamentary elections of September 17th provide another opportunity for two parties with a long historical course on the country’s political scene. On the one hand, there is the familiar voice of the Labor Party, on the other hand, the left-wing Meretz party is involved in a new political formation, the “Democratic Union” in which a familiar Israeli political protagonist with a significant career in the ranks of the IDF.

The ‘tired’ Labor Party

Undoubtedly, the ‘sick man’ on the Israeli party map has for years been and remains the historic ‘Labor Party’. The once-powerful center-left party of power, the successor of the Mapai’s party founded by the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, has for the past two decades not been able to overcome its endogenous pathogens and lack of successful personalities capable of responding successfully to successive electoral bouts. Since December 2018, and throughout the months that followed, there have been resounding departures of senior officials, with the latest being the departure of its leader, Avi Gabbay who assumed responsibility for an equally resounding defeat at the polls last April. Specifically, the “Labor Party” was the mainstay of the center-left Zionist Union (“Ha’Makhaneh ha’Tzioni”), which in the 2015 elections was the main opposition to Likud, garnering 786,313 votes. 7% of the total, and 24 seats). The personal antagonisms that followed led to the “Zionist Union” breaking up and the Labor Party independently going to the polls under Avi Gabbay on April 9, 2019, garnering only 190,870 votes (4.4% and 6 seats). The flight of votes from Labor to the “Blue and White” under Benny Gantz was massive – and the collapse of the Labor Party was also so.

The case of the “Labor Party” is characterized by the stability of its institutional internal structures, which however have proven to be dysfunctional due to the formalism displayed by its leading officials. This time, the lot for the leadership fell to former Defense Minister Amir Peretz (whose tenure, unfortunately, coincided with the less-than-ideal management of the Second War in Lebanon in the summer of 2006). The impending electoral bout and the likelihood of Labor not joining the government once again will probably mean yet another resounding resignation and another attempt to find a suitable leader. On the contrary, if the situation after the elections finally brings the “Blue and White” to power, only then can time be bought for Amir Peretz himself and his party.

The “Democratic Front” and the return of Ehud Barak

After numerous public interventions, mainly through social media, the former Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, retired general Ehud Barak has decided to enter the political arena. At the end of July 2019, the ‘Ha’Makhaneh ha’Demokrati’ political formation was established, around the Meretz center-left party. He surrounded himself with genuine left voices, stressing in his pre-election rhetoric the need to tackle Netanyahu’s and his environment’s corruption and nepotism, the complete separation of State-Religion, and the immediate resumption of talks with the Palestinians on the basis of a “two-state solution” in the context of the Oslo Accords.

The upcoming elections are a significant wager for Ehud Barakas their result will determine if his personality can stand with dignity on the political scene, after years of absence. On a purely personal level, Ehud Barak has wisely chosen to stay out of the institutional chaos of the “Labor Party”, which is natural ideological space. His decision to not return to his erstwhile party environment is explained, not just due to the institutional fetters characterizing the party today, but also because it would significantly lower any possibility of becoming a part of a coalition government with the “Blue and White” as the major partner. It should be noted that Barak is not on an electable position on the ballot of the “Democratic Union”, obviously at his own behest. At the same time in his occasional statements to the domestic press he maintains his personal autonomous presence, agreeing in principle with the statements of the leader of the coalition Nitzan Horowitz. This peculiar cohabitation of Ehud Barak with the “Democratic Union” may foretell his intention to be the post-election solution, leading a center-left coalition government in which “Blue and White” and the “Labor Party” will participate.

However, the social profile that Barak is attempting to promote comes in contrast with the powerful relations he has cultivated with specific business interests inside and outside Israel during the years he was absent from public life. On the other hand, friends and enemies cannot forget that when he was Prime Minister and during the talks with Palestinian historic leader Yasser Arafat he was seen as willing to agree to a division of Jerusalem into an eastern and western sector, with East Jerusalem becoming the capital of an independent Palestinian state. In contrast, despite the fact that the “Blue and White” characterizes itself as a center-left party, its collective leadership under Benny Gantz make it plain that Jerusalem will remain the indivisible capital of the state of Israel. From the above, it can be seen that Ehud Barak’s political past, as well as his business connections, could become a bulwark hindering his course, in the event that a post is offered him in the event that a governing coalition is formed around the “Blue and White”.

While current polls are not flattering for Barak’s attempt to return to political life, one cannot ignore the fact that his statements put forth substantive opposition arguments against Netanyahu’s administration in dealing with tension with the Palestinians, as well as in addressing the rising cost of living for the middle and lower-income classes.

On a purely party level, the “Democratic Union” is essentially run by the left-wing Meretz mechanism – the country’s longest-running left-wing party on the Jewish Zionist political scene – and by its newly elected leader, Nitzan. Although not one of the ruling parties, its position on the Palestinian issue is considered to be very ‘radical’ even for the center-left parties, but it still maintains a stable presence in the electorate – largely thanks to its liberal social agenda. In the 2015 elections, the party received 165,529 votes (3.9% and 5 seats) while, despite the intense polarized climate of the 9 April 2019 elections, its losses were minimal. The party retained four of the five seats in the Knesset, and its voters are believed to have moved to Benni Gantz’s “Blue and White” in order for the country to “finally get rid of Netanyahu,” as party officials have said and continue to say.

Meretz has traditionally highlighted issues related to gender equality, the advocacy of the LGBTQ community and other activist collectives. At the same time, it is worth noting that, with regard to the settlement of the Palestinian issue and the open question of Jewish settlements, Meretz has for decades been the main Israeli political force that has criticized Israeli settler activity. Former party leader Tamar Zandberg was the only Israeli politician to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah during the pre-election period ahead of the April 9, 2019 elections. The change of leadership with longtime MP and local LGBTQ community activist Nitzan Horowitz now in charge, perhaps means that this left-wing party will let Ehud Barak manage its purely political agenda and especially the open question of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As for purely social issues, there are many Meretz cadres who are able to effectively promote them publicly.

Last but not least, former Labor Party members and MPs, prominent among them Stav Shaffir, are backed by the “Democratic Union”. Shaffir expresses the significant proportion of voters and cadres of the Israeli Left, aged 30-40, who have not yet learned to filter their public speech – and this may prove to be a positive step in boosting rates for this political formation.

The main wager that this new political formation is called upon to win is whether it will be politically ‘tainted’ by Ehud Barak’s strong personality and long-standing political presence.